SIFF 2014: 40th Anniversary Special Presentation of The Whole Wide World–Saturday, June 7 — Anniversary Post

My last anniversary post from 2014 is bittersweet. Seeing The Whole Wide World on 35mm (at a time when 35mm was getting rarer and rarer) is one of my fondest memories from any of the festivals, and yet just two years later, SIFF would be mourning the loss of the film’s director (and SIFF co-founder), Dan Ireland. Also, like many of the links to SIFF’s old web page, one of the ones I cite below is no longer active, so I’ve removed the link, but kept the text.

Carl Spence and director (and SIFF co-founder) Dan Ireland
Carl Spence and director (and SIFF co-founder) Dan Ireland

The first Seattle International Film Festival began on May 14, 1976, at the Moore Egyptian Theatre and ended on May 31 (there was no 13th Seattle International Film Festival, which is why this year is the 40th Seattle International Film Festival).  Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald (which I’ve also seen spelled MacDonald) started the festival a year after taking over the Moore Theatre and renaming it the Moore Egyptian Theatre.  The first festival showed 18 films.  In 1985, the festival moved to the Egyptian Theatre on Capitol Hill, which was renovated (as was the Moore) by Ireland and Macdonald. (Sources: Historylink.org and SIFF History)  Therefore, it’s appropriate that not only would the 40th festival show one of Ireland’s films (his first feature), but that they would show it at the newly opened Egyptian Theatre.

Before the feature film, however, there was a short, and before the short, there was a wait period, as Carl Spence, Ireland, and Macdonald were all on hand to fiddle with the equipment after the previous screening in order to make sure that Ireland’s screening went off flawlessly.  That meant that passholders were put in a “holding area” in the lobby before being allowed to enter the theater.  Our passes were all prescanned, as well.

Once all was well, we took our seats, the ticketholders took their seats, and we were treated to an introduction by Spence.  Besides mentioning that Ireland and Macdonald started the Seattle International Film Festival, he thanked the sponsors (as the presenters always do), which in this case were board member Aron Michael Thompson, who underwrote the screening, and the always awesome Scarecrow Video, who has sponsored several of the screenings I’ve gone to at the festival.

Then Dan Ireland came out, thanking Carl for opening four screens that had been closed (three at the Uptown, one at the Egyptian).  He said his and Darryl’s hearts had hurt when the Egyptian had closed.  After that, he introduced the world premiere of his short, “Hate from a Distance.”  The story had originally come to him from Dennis Yares while Ireland was filming Jolene with Jessica Chastain (Yares wrote the screenplay).  The film coincides with the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act and centers around an image that horrified Ireland when he first saw it: that of a mother dressing her son in a KKK outfit (the photo appears onscreen at the end of the film).  Ireland then introduced the cast and crew members in the audience and had them stand, which were Yares (writer, producer), Kate Krieger (actress), and Harry Gregson-Williams (composer).  He also thanked Darryl for continuing the festival after he left to pursue directing.

“Hate from a Distance” is an excellent short film that tells of racism as seen through the eyes of a child.  Danny Baker (Asher Angel) is a young white boy whose father Ned (Brendan Bradley) is forever at odds with his black neighbor, Clyde (Rashawn Underdue), despite the fact that they used to be friends when boys.  Danny traces the animosity back to when Clyde tried to prove that he had a claim on the land that Ned owned, only to have the deed ripped up before his face by the judge.  The current dispute is that Clyde’s children steal potatoes from Ned’s property.  The film ties in the Biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar and the three men in the furnace with the house that is set on fire near the end of the short.  The film is dedicated to the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, an act that helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The dedication is preceded by a quote from Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

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Dennis Yares, Kate Krieger, and Harry Gregson-Williams are asked a question by Ireland

When the short ended, Spence and Ireland were joined onstage by Yares, Krieger, and Gregson-Williams for a short Q & A.  Having come from Canada, Ireland noticed a difference in how blacks were treated in the U.S.  He said we shouldn’t look at “how far we’ve come, but how far we have to go.”  Spence asked if Ireland was worried the film was too dark.  “Of course!” Ireland said, but he wanted to make a statement.  Spence then wanted to talk about the music.  For that, Gregson-Williams (who has scored all of Ireland’s films) had written a gospel-like piece prior to being asked, which Ireland decided to use.

D.D. Yares expounds on an answer
Yares expounds on an answer

Then Ireland talked about Krieger and her character.  Even though Krieger is the most talented actress (or actor) he’s mentored, when he came to her with this character (who plays Danny’s mother), he told her, “This is the most constipated character you’ll ever play.”  Krieger wasn’t the only person acting in the film who Ireland has mentored; he also mentored Bradley.  As for Angel, there’s a different connection: he’s Yares’s grandson.  Though child actors can be “terrifying,” Ireland said, “Working with Asher is a dream.”

The film will be playing at the Museum of Tolerance on July 2nd.

The Whole Wide World (Dan Ireland, 111 mins, USA 1996)

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Renée Zellweger as Novalyne Price and Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert Howard (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Before The Whole Wide World was screened, Ireland shared a message that D’Onofrio had sent him (he couldn’t be there because he was shooting elsewhere).  In it, he said the film will always be close to his heart.  “I consider The Whole Wide World a classic,” he continued.  Also, there is a scene in the movie where he is swinging a sword, which had to be sharp enough to cut blades of grass.  At the end of the scene, he plunges the blade into the ground.  When he looked down, he noticed that the blade had only missed his foot by centimeters, and he thought, “Only for Dan.  Only for Dan.”

Zellweger also couldn’t be there, as she was attending her mom’s birthday on the East Coast (“That’s what I love about her, ” Ireland said).  Ireland had Spence read her message, in which she wrote, “Hi Danny boy!” and gave instructions to embarrass the brilliant composer (Gregson-Williams), but to embarrass Vinny (D’Onofrio) even more.  She also thanked D’Onofrio for helping her act (by putting it all out there).

We then learned that we would be seeing a print, and not just any print, but Ireland’s personal print (according to Ireland, it’s the only print out there, which is a shame)!  Spence also mentioned that they rigged the speaker system from McCaw Hall so that the movies at the Egyptian would sound better than they had in the past.

(Photo courtesy of SIFF)
(Photo courtesy of SIFF)

The Whole Wide World opened SIFF 22 in 1996.  People who saw it back then recall it with fondness, and indeed, it is a wonderful film about the relationship between Texas schoolteacher Novalyne Price and Conan the Barbarian author Robert Howard.  Howard is uncouth, doesn’t like others, and isn’t respectable, but he has a good heart, is a good writer, and has a great imagination.  There is much made about his closeness to his mother, which might have prevented him from having any sort of romantic relationship, but the movie is really about two people who cared deeply for each other, even when they wouldn’t admit it.  The script is well-written, the acting is great, the Texas sunsets sumptuous (colors really pop more on film than they do on DCP–especially reds), and to watch a print, despite a few frames that had a bit of dust in them, was such a treat.  Sweet and sad, this is a lovely piece of work.

Like most of his criticism, Roger Ebert’s review of this film really gets to its heart.  If my review doesn’t convince you to see this movie, I hope his more detailed review does.

SIFF 2014: Silent Movie Sunday (with Sosin)–May 23 — Anniversary Post

One of the great things about film festivals is not just all the new films you can see, but also all the old ones. In the case of silent films, they’re often shown with new scores performed live. Though it’s more often the case that a new film you see at a festival will never play again, some of the old films can be quite rare, too. This was the case for SIFF 2014, where one of the films I saw is so rare, even Scarecrow Video doesn’t own a copy.

Though not planned, my Sunday consisted entirely of silent films, accompanied by Donald Sosin and introduced by SIFF board member (and silent movie scholar) Richie Meyer, who was himself introduced by artistic director Carl Spence.  To add a little silent film zaniness to my morning, the bus I was on blew out one of its tires.  Luckily, it was able to crawl to the next stop, which was only one stop away from mine.  And then, on the way back home that night, the bus I was on stalled right before the last stop!

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From “The Immigrant” (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

First came the Chaplin Shorts, consisting of “The Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914-which includes a rare walk-on appearance by Chaplin, as an early incarnation of his Tramp character), “One A.M.” (1916), “Easy Street” (1917), and “The Immigrant” (1917).  Meyer mentioned that this year is the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s first appearance on film.  He was signed by Keystone in December 1913 and made his first film with them in January the following year.  By the spring of 1914, he was directing his own films, as he hated being directed by others.  In 1915 (late 1914, according to Wikipedia), he was signed by the Essanay Company, and in 1916 he was signed by Mutual to a $700,000 a year contract (with a $100,000 a year signing bonus), making him the highest paid person in the world.

Meyer went on to talk a bit about Chaplin’s upbringing.  His mother was committed to an insane asylum and his father was a drunk, so he was mostly brought up by his older brother.  Chaplin’s early life experiences permeate the 81 films that he made.  Of the films we saw, the first one was made while Chaplin was at Keystone, while the last three were made at Mutual.  “One A.M.” includes Chaplin as an inebriate; “Easy Street” is where the word “heavy” comes from (as used to denote a bad guy), as the villain in the film is quite large; and “The Immigrant” includes social commentary (and is also the short that the boys see in Au Revoir, Les Enfants).  Meyer then introduced Donald Sosin, who had just come from Russia.  Coincidentally, he had just played accompaniment for “The Immigrant” there.  Then, Meyer called out different themes used in silent films: the hero, the villain, the heroine, the chase, the sad ending, the Hollywood ending.  Sosin played a bit of each theme before being cut off by Meyer.

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Donald Sosin at keyboard

The accompaniment to all of the shorts was excellent, though I’m not sure if Sosin played the original scores for each work or his own (UPDATE 6/1: Sosin played all original compositions, though he did make use of some of the themes in SONG OF THE FISHERMEN).  In any case, the shorts improved as they went on.  In “The Kid Auto Races at Venice,” Chaplin does little more than come into and out of the shot and hog the scenery.  Funny improvisation, but nothing spectacular.  “One A.M.,” which he directed (unlike the first short) has some hilarious gags, including an extended one where he tries to reach the second floor of his house, only to be thwarted by the stairs, then the pendulum on a clock, and even a stuffed bear.  That sequence, however, goes on for too long.  While the gags show off Chaplin’s inventiveness, he hadn’t yet learned how to tell a story in film form. That changes with the next two shorts, both considered among his best work.  “Easy Street” sees Chaplin as a man who reforms from a life of criminality and becomes a police officer, only to be assigned the most difficult beat in the city.  In “The Immigrant” he plays an immigrant, coming to America with other immigrants on board a sea vessel.  Both two-reelers include love interests and are better at balancing the comedy with story elements than the first two, which really have no story.  My favorite part of the shorts, however, was seeing young kids approaching Sosin after the shorts were over, and him asking if they liked them.

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Han Langen and Wang Renmei in SONG OF THE FISHERMEN (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Without Meyer, SIFF wouldn’t have been able to show the next film, so we were very lucky to see it.  Song of the Fishermen is a 1934 Shanghai film making its American premiere.  The Stamford Alumni Society was in the audience to see this film, as was a guest from the Beijing Film Institute.  Meyer told us it was a pristine restoration (and it was!) and that Shanghai in the 1930s made more movies than Hollywood.  This particular film was made by Niwa Studios, which was the leading film studio in Asia, and was directed by Chusheng Cai.

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Richie Meyer introduces SONG OF THE FISHERMEN

Silent Chinese cinema is a specialty of Meyer’s (which is how he got a copy of the film).  In fact, he was selling a book and DVD combo in the lobby after the film was over, which celebrate the star of the film.

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Wang Renmei is a fascinating person.  She was born right after the fall of the Qing Dynasty and lived through the Communist Revolution.  In fact, her father was Mao’s teacher when younger, and Renmei was a favorite of Mao’s.  While this is Renmei’s most famous role, she was fired by the studio after making this film for getting pregnant, as the studio felt their audience wouldn’t want to see a pregnant woman onscreen.  And yet, she continued to make films, even after the communists took over.

One of the most interesting things about this film is that the studio recorded Renmei singing the “Song of the Fishermen,” and while crude, it was played three times during the film, during which Sosin stopped playing.  The effect was a bit eerie, for here is a garbled voice from 80 years ago being heard for the first time in an American theater.  This was actually the first time the attempt was made to show it with the movie.  In the final scene in the film, it is even matched to the lips.

Before having Sosin play different themes, as he did for the Chaplin Shorts, Meyer had people call out a year, country, director, and genre.  Sosin then had to make up an original composition incorporating all of those elements.  The first one was 1939, Romania, Kurosawa, Western.  The second one was 1972, Russia, Scorsese, porn.  He did well with both themes.  For the film itself, he played the score composed by Nie Er, who later wrote the national anthem for the People’s Republic of China.

At the beginning of the film, there is a dedication to Jin Chuasong, who died during filming.  Meyer explained that it took four weeks to shoot the film, and several crew members got seasick while filming on the boats.  There also appeared to be some sections and frames missing, though what was there looked fantastic.  While not a great film, it still holds up, including some not-so-subtle jabs at the hypocrisy of the religious.  In addition, the suffering of Kitty (Renmei) and her brother, Little Monkey (Han Langen), as well as her entire family, is poignant, if melodramatic (the father dies at sea, the grandmother dies at home, the mother becomes blind, and the children cannot find work).

Afterwards, I bought the book/DVD combo and had Meyer sign it for me.  The price was $30 — all of which goes to SIFF.  While the book isn’t that long, there are some wonderful photos in it, and Sosin plays accompaniment on the DVD.

All in all, a pleasant day spent with a lost art.

SIFF 2014: Press Launch and Week One of Press Screenings — Anniversary Post

SIFF 2014 was the first year I applied for and received a press pass. Nowadays, the press launch is squeezed together with Donor Night, but back then, it was a separate event, took place in the afternoon, and occurred at the Uptown, rather than the Egyptian. To help with my reporting, I replaced my point-and-shoot camera with a DSLR that my parents had bought me the previous Christmas. This was a good year to upgrade my camera, for it also was SIFF’s 40th Festival (though there was no 13th festival), which meant that the programming (and guests) would be extra special that year.

Wednesday, April 30

Today I went to my first ever press launch.  I came directly from getting a small cavity filled, so there was still some sensitivity when snacking on the Continental Breakfast.  And, although I reached for an orange juice, one of my fellow staff members traded it for a Mimosa.  “It’s your birthday,” he said, though that had been last week.  I have to say, the Mimosa was the better choice.

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Once we had our fill of food, we  moved down the hall to Uptown 2, where the official press launch began.

03. Press Launch, 4-30

It began with Carl Spence, Artistic Director at SIFF, who mentioned that the Closing Night film this year will be The One I Love, starring Mark Duplass.  He also mentioned that the Centerpiece Gala will be Boyhood (Richard Linklater), which I already knew, but then we got to see a trailer for it, and I’m even more excited to see it than I was before, if that’s possible.  Slacker had its World Premiere at SIFF, and while Boyhood isn’t a World Premiere or even a North American Premiere, it’s appropriate that it’s making its Seattle premiere here.  And in case you want the breakdown of films at SIFF 2014:

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(Note: in my press packet it says the festival is comprised of 435 films, but the press release I received corresponds with the numbers here, so I’m going with 440 films.)

Then Mary Bacarella, Managing Director at SIFF, took the microphone to thank the staff and sponsors, as well as the caterers, Il Fornaio.

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The tribute guests were once again mentioned (Laura Dern, Chiwetel Ojiofor), with an addition: A Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented this year to Quincy Jones.  As part of the celebrations, SIFF will be showing Pawnbroker, which featured Jones’s first film score.  Carl went on to say that one of the midnight films this year will be the king of all midnight films: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which premiered at the first festival).  Other films celebrating SIFF’s 40th include The Stunt Man (which had a record-breaking 52-week run at the Guild 45th after playing at the 8th Seattle International Film Festival) and Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World.  Films with parties attached include Dior and I, I Origins (from Mike Cahill, director of Another Earth), and They Came Together (a romcom spoof from David Wain, the director of Wet Hot American Summer).  Also, the moods are back in the catalog to help people decide what films to see.

The rest of the presentation included Beth Barrett talking about Northwest Connections films, Archival films, Docs, and Shorts; Dustin Kaspar talking about the Forums, African films, and Futurewave films; and Clinton McClung talking about Face the Music and Midnight Adrenaline films.  After each section, a trailer from one of the films featured was played.

We then had a break, where we each got a copy of the free guide for the festival.

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André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All Is By My Side (Photo courtesy of SIFF)

Jimi: All Is By My Side played after the break.  André Benjamin channels Hendrix’s looks and mannerisms for the film, if not quite his onstage presence, but the movie has two serious flaws: a lack of emotion and little use for developing secondary characters.  Some nice touches (like the visual representations of drug trips), great costuming, and Hendrix’s cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” are the bright spots.  It’s interesting, but the EMP exhibit is better.

Thursday, May 1

Today was the first day of press screenings.  Press screenings are open to the press and anyone who has a full series pass or higher.  Traditionally, press screenings start on the last Monday of April and play Monday through Thursday until the end of festival.  This year, festival organizers decided to start screenings on May 1 (a Thursday).  In addition, there were press screenings scheduled on May 2.  While there have been press-only screenings on Fridays before, to have general press screenings on a Friday is unusual.

Last year, I remember a lot of scrambling and busy-ness on the first press screening day.  This year, not so much.  Of the three films shown (Mood Indigo, DamNation, Dear White People), DamNation received the most critical praise from the people who watched it.  It deals with dam removal, including the Elwha Dams on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Friday, May 2

Our rare Friday press screenings began with #Chicagogirl-The Social Network Takes on a Dictator and continued with The Skeleton Twins before concluding with The Congress, which I am very much looking forward to seeing.  Since I got to leave early, I don’t know how The Congress was received, but I do know a few people were disappointed with the ending of The Skeleton Twins.

SIFF 2013: Week Two, Part Two — Anniversary Post

SIFF 2013 had some of the best films out of all of the festivals I attended. Part of that might’ve been due to the fact that my press screening schedule allowed me to attend most of the evening and weekend films, which were often the bigger movie offerings. I also got lucky. I almost didn’t see Wolf Children and I made room for Comrade Kim Goes Flying based on the buzz surrounding its press screening. By the way, I’ve since seen Summer Wars, and many other films by Mamoru Hosoda, and I still think Wolf Children is his masterpiece.

Thursday, May 30

Aloha Thursday started with a press screening of the weepiest film I’ve seen at the festival, the North American premiere of The Girl With Nine Wigs.  This German/Belgium co-production is based on a best-selling novel, itself based on a true story, about a 21-year-old woman named Sophie (Lisa Tomaschewsky) who finds out she has cancer.  After shaving off her remaining hair, she deals with her diagnosis by buying nine different wigs.  Each night, she sneaks out of the hospital wearing one of the wigs, each one with a different name and personality attached to it.  While there’s some element of fantasy involved (the head nurse gives in too easily to unplugging her IV each night so that she can go party), the saddest (and happiest) moments are the ones that ring the truest, such as when Sophie sees her father break down in the hallway after her diagnosis.  A very good film.

The other two press screenings this morning were I Used to Be Darker and Comrade Kim Goes Flying.  The latter film is “the first Western-financed fiction feature made entirely in North Korea” (to quote the SIFF Guide).  Based on what people said after seeing this film (including one of my coworkers), I decided to do a little rearranging so that I could see it on Sunday.  Even better, the director would be in attendance for the festival screenings.

That night, I saw two films at the Uptown: The Summit and Ludwig II.  The first film is a documentary about the 11 climbers who perished while climbing K-2 in 2008, and what might have gone wrong.  With beautiful scenery, interviews with some of the surviving climbers, and video and photos taken during the disastrous climb (as well as some reenactments), the film shows how several small errors in judgment, and some inexperienced climbers, led to such a horrible disaster, with most of the deaths occurring during the descent.  I never had a desire to climb K-2 before, but I definitely do not now.

The North American premiere of Ludwig II, in the same theater, is director Peter Sehr’s last film, who was well-loved on the festival circuit with such films as Kaspar Hauser and The Anarchist’s Wife.  The screening was dedicated to him.  The film tells the story of Ludwig II, the “Mad King of Bavaria,” who financed Wagner’s operas and went on to build huge fairytale castles.  Declared unfit to rule by reason of insanity, he eventually committed suicide (according to the movie, though some people think he may have been murdered).  The film follows him from right before he ascends the throne until the end of his life.  While it looks gorgeous and is sympathetic to the king, seeing him as someone who wanted to bring music and culture to Bavaria in place of war and politics, the film does not find enough drama, either internal or external, to sustain its 143 minute run time.  It’s decent, but it never rises to something special.

Friday, May 31

I saw two films today.  Inch’Allah (which means “God willing”) follows a Quebec doctor who works in Israel’s divided West Bank.  It starts with a scene that the film will finish at the end of the film: a suicide bombing attack in a cafe.  In between, we see the doctor (Evelyne Brochu) go from her home on the Israeli side of the West Bank to her practice on the Palestinian side.  As well as show the absurdity of bureaucracy in the face of fear (one of her patients is not allowed into a hospital because of heightened security, even though she is about to give birth and is losing blood), the film gives a human face to all involved: Israelis, Palestinians, soldiers, and even suicide bombers.  A movie about grey areas, and the people trapped in their shadows.

The second film was a bit more uplifting, even though it deals with a teenager wrongly accused of planning to gun down his classmates at school.  Blackbird is one of the best films I saw at SIFF by not being the kind of film I thought it would be.  The teenager in question, Sean Randall (Connor Jessup), is not a killer, but an outcast.  Used to living in the city with his mother, he now lives with his father in a small town, where his goth clothing and taste in music makes him the target of some bullies at school.  In order to deal with his angst, he writes about killing his classmates with guns his father owns.  This brings the police to his door, and a stint in juvenile detention.  Ordered by the judge to have no contact with any of the people he supposedly targeted, he can’t help himself from seeking out the one person who he really cared about, Deanna Roy (Alexia Fast).  A perceptive, mature film about teenagers, the judicial system, and how misunderstandings between children and adults can lead to detrimental consequences that benefit no one.

Saturday, June 1

Throughout these two weeks, I had thought it impossible for any movie to affect me as deeply as The Act of Killing.  What movie could reach that level of intensity?  And, by reaching that level of intensity, outdo that film’s craftmanship?

The answer, of course, was its antithesis.  A live-action documentary about death and killing became the second best movie of the festival behind an animated fictional film about life and birthing.  Wolf Children is Mamoru Hosoda’s masterpiece, and I say that having not seen Summer Wars.

That is not to say that this film doesn’t have its darker moments, but they are gentle, human moments.  The film (and it was actually on film) filled me with a warm glow for its entire run time.  It starts with a woman meeting a man at her university whom she discovers to be half-wolf, half-man.  It end with their children (daughter Yuki and son Ame) deciding whether to grow up as humans or as wolves.  Narrated by Yuki, this is ultimately a film about family, the sacrifices parents make for their children, and the choices children have to make as they grow older.  And did I mention the animation is gorgeous, and has a hand-drawn quality to much of it?

Following this was a restored DCP of Richard III, which looked like film minus the dirt and scratches.  A great Shakespeare adaptation, minus some occasional overdramatic acting from Sir Laurence Olivier.  Then I rushed with a friend to the Egyptian Theatre, where he and the rest of my friends went to see the Centerpiece Gala film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (which I saw during The Best of Fest and really enjoyed), while I went to the Harvard Exit to see The Wall.  Having had a long and tiring day (Richard III was 2 hours and 41 minutes long), The Wall was probably the worst film I could’ve seen, as the voice-over narration is done by a women with a very soothing voice.  Plus, the film is slow-paced and contemplative.  It’s about a woman who is staying with some friends at their cabin.  Her friends go into town that night for supplies, while she stays behind with their dog.  When they haven’t come back by morning, she goes to investigate, only to discover that an invisible wall has sprung up, trapping her in the cabin and the surrounding woods.  She eventually finds other companions beside the dog, but I felt that this was a more interesting idea on paper than it is on film, particularly concerning the ending, since it should have suggested to the heroine that there must be a break in the wall somewhere, and yet she is still trapped in the cabin at the end of the film.  An interesting concept, and certainly the type of film that should be shown at festivals, but no more than decent in its handling of its theme.

After the film, it was party time at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Hall, which is where the Centerpiece Gala was held.

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Okay, so this photo was actually taken at the end of the party.

I didn’t get to go to the Centerpiece Gala last year because I had to work (and it ends early), so I was very excited to experience it this time.  There was food, dancing, and drinks — all of which made for a great party-going experience.  Plus, I was there with friends, which made the experience even more memorable.

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39. Centerpiece Gala at DAR Hall
42. Outside tables
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Sunday, June 2

50. Poster

If Wolf Children was the best film I saw at SIFF, Comrade Kim Goes Flying was the guiltiest of pleasures. Nicholas Bonner, who was one of three people who directed this Belgium, North Korea, and United Kingdom joint production, was in attendance and told us before the film to try and watch it as a North Korean would, forgetting all our preconceived notions about North Korea.

The film is a fantasy, shot in bright colors and starry a plucky, likeable, and almost always smiling Han Jong Sim as Kim Yong Mi, a coal miner who is transferred from a small town to Pyongyang after her mine reaches its quota ahead-of-schedule.  Having harbored dreams of becoming a trapeze artist, she attempts to achieve her goal in the city, but finds out it’s much more difficult than she expected, especially as she has a fear of heights.  In the process of overcoming her fear, she must convince an arrogant trapeze artist, Pak Jang Phil (Pak Chung Gok), that a coal miner can fly.  Starting with a ridiculous scene in a field that involves a white dove and visuals reminiscent of Super 8 footage, there is nothing political about this film, but there is a lot that is fun, charming, and goofy.  I had a smile on my face the entire time.

After the film was over, Nicholas Bonner made sure to reiterate two things: 1.) this is a fantasy, and 2.) it’s not a propaganda film.  Most North Korea films are blatant propaganda; they don’t make fiction films.  Bonner has made three documentaries on North Korea and North Koreans, and he suggested that we check those out if we want realistic depictions of North Korea.  Plus, I’ve seen many Japanese and South Korean films that are similar to this one, with plucky heroines who are chasing their dreams in the big city and must contend with male rivals.  Can’t North Koreans make and enjoy the same kinds of movies?  And in thinking that nobody is well-off in North Korea reminds me of the blog post by The Squeaky Robot about the fallacy of the single story, which is that one point-of-view, in regards to how people in a certain place and time lived, is never true.  Finally, some scenes that a Westerner might interpret as portraying  communism versus capitalism are seen in North Korea as the working class versus the intellectual class.

Some other highlights from the Q & A:

  • There are actually three directors on this film.  Every two years, there is an international film festival in Pyongyang, which is where Bonner met Anja Daelemans.  I don’t remember how he said he met Kim Gwang Hun.  Anyway, Bonner said we should see this film as the result of three friends who wanted to make a movie together, with one of them just happening to be North Korean.
  • The actress who plays Comrade Kim is actually a trapeze artist, since it was easier to train a trapeze artist to be an actress than it would have been to train an actress to be a trapeze artist.  Unlike many North Koreans, Han Jong Sim has traveled around the world, and yet she was still not sure how the film would be received outside of her home country.  To reiterate this point, Bonner read a letter from her.
  • North Koreans not only love the film, but also love that it’s playing outside their country.  And while filming was done inside North Korea (with archival footage taking the place of wide shot pickups, since a North Korean audience would know where those locations are), post-production was done elsewhere.
  • This is the first North Korean film to use synchronized sound,  and the first North Korean film allowed to be shown outside North Korea.
  • When they showed the film in South Korea, one man stood up afterwards and said it was nice to see that mother-in-laws in North Korea are the same as mother-in-laws in South Korea.

I did make sure to tell Bonner afterwards that I enjoyed the film and didn’t think it was propaganda, but if only I had not adjusted my camera after asking someone to take a photo of me with the director and movie poster!  He said it was too bright, but the picture that came out was a little too dark, and adjusting it allowed some noise to creep in.  Still, it’s a good photo.

51. Director Nicholas Bonner and me after the screening

The final film of the evening was a restored print of A Man Vanishes, a classic film by Shohei Imamura in black-and-white, which starts out by being a documentary about a Japanese man who vanished one day, to the wife’s growing interest in the director, to an exposé on what is and isn’t reality.  It moves slowly in the beginning, as much of it involves interviewing subjects who knew the man, but once the director and crew start to become the subject, the film becomes interesting and stays that way until its end.

Press screenings-Week One — Anniversary Post

In 2013, I got smart and decided to work the press screenings. I detail below the advantages of working them as opposed to working the festival proper. Unfortunately, when the press screenings moved from the Uptown to Pacific Place in 2016, hourly staff were no longer needed to run them, which saved SIFF money, but robbed future employees the experience of working a set schedule during Fest — one that didn’t include nights and weekends.

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The official start of the 39th Seattle International Film Festival isn’t until May 16, but the unofficial start began on Monday, with the first day of press screenings.  In addition to people with Press passes, Full Series passholders and higher can attend the screenings.  Unlike last year, where I left my schedule open to the whim of the scheduling gods, I asked to work press screenings this year, as did two of my coworkers.  While working them constitutes an early start time (the first of three films starts at 10 am, with doors opening at 9:30), they also only run Monday through Thursday, allowing people who work them to have evenings and weekends off  during the festival, which is when the festival films play.

Since the first two weeks of press screenings aren’t followed by any festival films, what follows are short descriptions of what each day of the press screenings were like, along with the films that were played:

Monday (Day One): My bus dropped me off at one end of Seattle Center; I walked to the other.  First day of selling sandwiches.  We sold four.  Spent my downtime attaching stickers to parking passes and looking at photos of animals hugging each other.  Films: The Deep, Frances Ha, Our Nixon

Tuesday (Day Two): Same bus; same trek across Seattle Center.  Moved concession machinery to attach posters to windows, but first had to remove signage already there, which involved paper towels, a razor, and a bottle of Goo Gone.  We sold more sandwiches today.  Downtime spent in intensive Sporcle battles.  Films: Celestial Wives of Meadow Mari, Crystal Fairy, Jump

Wednesday (Day Three): Took a different bus to work.  Found out that we need to put up more posters, and that the tape has to be flush with the poster edges, rather than diagonally across them.  Involved kneeling and standing on counters.  Short turnaround between the first and second films, which meant that everyone who wanted food had to buy it at concessions, instead of at a restaurant or a fast food joint.  Sold a lot of sandwiches and wraps.  Tomorrow is Aloha Friday Thursday.  I don’t own a Hawaiian shirt, but I was too tired to buy one before 8 pm, and the stores that sell them close at that time.  Films: The Daughter (Doch), We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, C.O.G.

Thursday (Day Four): Got a ride to work.  Wore “Myrtle Beach” t-shirt as closest thing to beachwear that I own.  Will buy a Hawaiian shirt over the weekend.    Given beads to wear, which support a hanging plastic chicken.  Films today dealt with such heavy subjects as sex tourism, religious fanaticism, and fat camp.  After second film ended, one patron came out and said, “Now I can go home and slit my throat.”  Films: Paradise: Love, Paradise: Faith, Paradise: Hope

SIFF 2019: Week One Capsule Reviews

Sibel (Turkey/France/Germany/Luxembourg 2018, 95 min)

Digital Screener, Sun 5/19

The good thing about screeners is that you can watch them whenever you want. The bad thing is that you aren’t getting the full cinematic experience. While I benefited from seeing Sibel on the small screen in terms of sleep (it was playing that same day at noon, before my shift at work), the visuals are such that a larger screen would’ve improved the experience.

As it was, this story of a mute woman (Damla Sönmez) who is hunting a wolf in the forest so as to gain acceptance in her village is quite the film. Notice her small acts of noncomformity throughout, and revel not only in Sönmez’s incredible portrayal, but also the reactions that steal across Elit Iscan’s face when dealing with Sibel, and after (she plays Sibel’s younger sister, Fatma). Highly recommended.

The Woman Who Loves Giraffes (Canada 2018, 83 min)

Digital Screener, Mon 5/20

Anne Innis Dagg could be called the Jane Goodall of giraffes, but this would be incorrect, as Dagg (back when she was Anne Innis) studied giraffes in the wild before Goodall did her work on chimpanzees. In fact, she was the first person to study animals in Africa (this was back in 1956, in apartheid-ridden South Africa), and only the second person to study them in the wild. Unlike Goodall, she never became a household name, as her work only appealed to specialists. Plus, she wasn’t able to secure a teaching post that would’ve allowed her to continue her research, mainly because she was a woman (she was denied tenure despite having met the requirements). She spent the next few decades fighting for gender equality in Canadian universities (she’s Canadian), and then was rediscovered as more researchers added to her groundbreaking work on giraffes (she wrote what is considered the bible on giraffes back in 1976, along with J. Bristol Foster).

This documentary has little flab and is made all the better by its copious use of archival footage (much of it shot by Dagg) and the force of nature that is Anne Innis Dagg. I cried happy tears several times. See the film, buy her books, help save the giraffes.

Fly Rocket Fly (North American Premiere, Germany/Belgium 2018, 91 min)

Digital Screener, Mon 5/20

Another film about scientists in Africa, except these scientists were there to build a rocket in Zaire, not study giraffes in South Africa. OTRAG was the first company to attempt to create a commercial rocket for space travel, but was thwarted by Cold War politics (this was in 1975-79) and a bad launch at an inopportune time. While a solid doc, it didn’t move me as the giraffe doc had, possibly because we are limited by the perceptions of those directly involved, who are not as compelling as Dagg. Also, one of my friends pointed out that despite OTRAG hiring many citizens of Zaire to help transform part of the jungle into a launch pad, not one of them was interviewed for the documentary, though some of the wives of the scientists were. Future festival screenings: Sat 5/25 1:00pm Lincoln Square, Mon 5/27 11:00am SIFF Cinema Egyptian

Farinelli (Archival, France/Italy/Belgium 1994, 111 min)

SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Mon 5/20

Excluding press screenings, the first film I saw in a theater was one I’d seen almost 25 years ago — due to a trailer on my VHS copy of Before Sunrise. The movie that started my love affair with international independent cinema, the only issue I had with the presentation was a glitch in the DCP that caused the sound to be out-of-sync with the movie for the last 17 minutes.

While it’s not a great film, it’s still a good one, and is indicative of international independent cinema: wonderful costumes, lots of sex (though not as gratuitous as teenager me remembered), beautiful women, and subtitles (three languages are spoken in the film: Italian, French, and a smattering of English). Like Amadeus, it mixes fact with fiction, but is more over-the-top and not as successful — unless you’re talking about the “Director’s Cut” of Amadeus, in which case you can go to hell. It even tries to repeat the famous Salieri/Mozart writing-the-requiem scene with Handel and Farinelli’s younger brother, Riccardo Broschi (who was indeed a composer in real life), though the roles are reversed. Future festival screenings: Sat 5/25 3:15pm Lincoln Square

Ms. Purple (USA 2019, 85 min)

Press Screening, Tue 5/21

This movie should be a disaster. Overbearing music combined with odd musical choices (and too many of them), stylistic flourishes that make no sense (like the overuse of slow-mo jerky cam, which only works maybe once or twice in the whole film), and a cliched plot that hits all the traditional beats and doesn’t even attempt to give secondary characters personalities beyond one note. And yet between these beats, the main actors are given enough space to create believable characters and lovely moments, which are the highlights of the film. Not to mention the film could’ve ended at three different points. Where it actually ends is the weakest choice of the three. And yet, I kinda liked it. Go figure. Future festival screenings: Fri 5/24 8:00pm SIFF Cinema Uptown, Sat 5/25 4:00pm Pacific Place

Sonja – The White Swan (Norway 2019, 114 min)

SIFF Cinema Uptown, Tue 5/21

A biopic of Sonja Henie, the great Norwegian figure skating champion, this film likewise skates across its emotional landscape, rather than digging deep. It checks all the boxes for a biopic, but didn’t really move me till the Rio tour, and that’s near the end of the film. Since Henie is surrounded by her family and people from her childhood, it might’ve made more sense to set more of the pic there (rather than through limited flashbacks), so that we can see how her relationships with these people change over time. We don’t even get a sense as to the real nature of the relationship between her and her bookkeeper Connie (if not on Henie’s side, then certainly on Connie’s), and their relationship begins early in the film and ends late. The acting could be at fault here, but Ine Marie Wilmann (as Sonja) is great at being sweet in public and nasty in private, and Valene Kane (as Connie) is great at being supportive or exasperated, so it’s either the directing or the writing (or both) that cause this film to stay earthbound. Future festival screenings: Mon 5/27 8:15pm Lincoln Square

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (USA 2019, 106 min)

SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Wed 5/22

Do we need another Woodstock documentary? After all, there’s already the classic 1970 documentary that covers the festival in great detail (which, to be fair to this movie, I haven’t seen yet, in either cut). This one, however, focuses on the people who put it on and the ones who experienced the festival first-hand or lived close enough to witness the gridlock and miles of young people walking to the grounds, rather than on the acts that performed. For people who weren’t there (or weren’t alive when it took place), it explains why it was such a cultural touchstone, and why other rock festivals didn’t have as much of an impact (for one, many of them, including ones put on earlier that year, ended in violence. Woodstock didn’t). A must-see. Future festival screenings: Sunday 5/26 3:00pm SIFF Cinema Uptown

SIFF 2012: Galas, Tributes, Parties, And Other Happenings — Anniversary Post

One of the perks of working for SIFF, as opposed to volunteering, is that employees are usually allowed to attend the parties (though it depends on capacity). It only seems fitting, then, that my second repost from SIFF 2012 focuses on the parties and galas I attended that year. Removing the links that no longer work (or that are no longer relevant, like one for David Poland for Movie City News) makes me realize how much has changed in seven years. Even the cover band that played at the Closing Night Gala no longer has a webpage.

At Kaspar’s for my first ever SIFF party

First, I should mention that I didn’t go to every party, and even fewer Galas (movie+party).  I didn’t go to the Opening Night Gala because no one told me I could, until after I had made plans.  Then, I didn’t get invites to the first couple of parties because I wasn’t on the staff-generated email list.  Once I got on the staff list, I got every update that I was supposed to get, and if I didn’t go to a party, it was because of work, exhaustion, or some other excuse. But first, I burned my fingers.

This is why one should never pour coffee directly from the brewer, or at least pay attention while one is doing it.  So, after spilling much of the coffee out of the cup in a reaction to the incredible burning sensation and shock that I felt when the coffee hit my fingers, I filled the order, controlled my desire to faint, and then calmly walked over to the sink and doused my hand in cold water.  Later I put on some ointment we had upstairs, which worked amazingly well.  My fingers stopped hurting after that, and it healed in two days.  The picture above is what I wore home that night, but I traded it for a band-aid for the following night, when I went to my first movie+party, a Saturday Gala on May 26.  The movie was As Luck Would Have It at 6:30 pm at the Uptown, with Salma Hayek.  The party was at Kaspar’s at 8:30.

There were appetizers.  There were drinks.  There was dancing.

My yellow staff wristband got me unlimited drinks at the party, as opposed to the two drink limit that everyone else had.  Not that it mattered, as I’m not much of a drinker.  At the party, I sat with some of the staff from the theater, had two glasses of chardonnay and some rich food, and woke up the next day with a massive headache, which I thought was a result of the aforementioned chardonnay.  Except that a hangover doesn’t result in brief and multiple reigns on the porcelain throne.  Luckily, while I had to work Sunday, I had the following two days off to recuperate, even slipping in a movie on Tuesday.

I was plenty rested up for the Centerpiece Gala on Saturday, June 2, which is why it was such a shame that I couldn’t go, due to work.  Some of my coworkers were meeting for drinks after the official party, but for me, drinks alone do not a party make.  There must be either dancing or karaoke, too.  Plus, I was tired, so I went home and gave up my two invites to one of my friends, who invited one of her friends to go.

The next party I went to was the Gay-La in Capitol Hill on Wednesday, June 6, at The Lobby Bar.  Because I worked until 9:30 and the party was at 8:30, I got there late, apparently after the party reached its peak.  The place was nice, but there was no designated dance floor, so apart from people dancing in their chairs, it was a lot of drinking and talking until the bar closed at midnight.

Downstairs
Upstairs

The bar did, however, have a nice view of the road from the upstairs area, where I once again sat with some of my coworkers, including some people who only work the festival, and their friends.

I should also mention that, both times, I brought one of my friends, too.  That pattern changed for the final three parties I went to. But first, SIFF had its first tribute, An Evening with Sissy Spacek, on Thursday, June 7, at the Uptown.

Long before the festival began, I offered to work that day. Then, the day after the event, I read an email saying that all staff could see the tributes for free (normally, we would have to pay for a ticket, since they cost more than your usual $11 movie).  Oh well.  I still had some time to duck into the theater for a few minutes here and there to see the Q&A, which was moderated by Richard Corliss.  I also saw another familiar person there as part of the press junket.  I remembered him from Ebertfest, but it took me awhile to remember his name.  Then it hit me: it’s David Poland! We had a red carpet for Spacek, then she was whisked away to the employee break room for any last-minute preparations (and possibly, to nibble on the Theo Mint and Hazelnut bars and drink some of the bottled water that had come from concessions).  Apparently, she entered the theater through the lobby, instead of going through the back entrance.  Only my boss noticed it, despite concessions being full of people.  As such, I only got a picture of the red carpet after she had left, and pictures of her during the Q&A from the back of the room.  I also got to use the break room right after she left it, though I refrained from sitting on the director’s chairs there.  I’m not that kind of fan.

From what I picked up from the Q&A, Spacek thinks it ridiculous to compare “mere mortals” (including herself) to Meryl Streep (Streep is “the best actress…actor…of all time”), believes Jessica Chastain is the best young actress currently working, and loves telling stories.  Most of what I heard had to do with The Coal Miner’s Daughter.  In short:

  • Spacek knew how good Tommy Lee Jones was in the film because she knew his real-life counterpart.
  • Loretta Lynn kept telling people that Spacek would play her in a film.  Spacek met with Lynn to squash that rumor.
  • The Oscar Spacek won made her bankable in Hollywood.

During one of the times I went in, one of the spotlight operators asked me if I would be there long.  When I answered in the affirmative, he put me in charge of his spotlight until he returned.  All I had to do was turn it off if more clips from Spacek’s career were shown.  They weren’t, so I just stood next to it the whole time.

The other tribute was for William Friedkin on Saturday, but he was at the Egyptian and I was working at the Uptown, so I didn’t get to go.  Emile Hirsch came, too, as both of them were promoting their new film, Killing Joe, which Friedkin directed and Hirsch starred in.

In between these tributes was the NW Connections Party on Friday, June 8, at The Grill on Broadway, which, unlike the other parties, started late, at 11 pm.  This party was for all the local filmmakers who had made films shown during the festival.  It is also where local public TV station KCTS gave out the first annual Seattle Reel NW Award, of which they were a sponsor.

And the winner is…
…Megan Griffiths, for EDEN!

While I didn’t see Lynn Shelton there (director of the Opening Night movie, Your Sister’s Sister), I did meet Megan Griffiths, soon after she won her award (I also talked with the person in charge of social media at KCTS).  Unfortunately, by that point they had taken her award away (to be given back to her on Closing Night–she also told me she wanted to “keep it [the award] clean”), but despite interruptions occurring every time I talked with her, she seems like a nice person.  She even agreed to take a photo with me.

Though that would have been a great time to whip out my business card and ask her to let me know if she ever needs a screenwriter, I did not (not that I’ve even written a screenplay before, but she doesn’t need to know that).  To be honest, I wouldn’t mind just being on a movie set and learning as much as I can from the crew.  For example, I’d love to learn about cinematography, including lenses, filters, and use of light.  I already have a pretty good eye for photography.

But I digress.

After the NW Connections Party (during which I sat, again, with some coworkers), there were only two more on the schedule: the Closing Night Gala (Sunday, June 10 at 8:30 pm), and the Super Secret Staff Party, which started when the Closing Night Gala ended.  But before the party, there was the movie, and for the first time all festival, it had multiple screenings.  In the same theater.  At the same time.  I doubt I will ever see concessions that busy again.

The movie was Grassroots, which was based on a book written by a former writer for The Stranger about his friend’s campaign for City Council.  Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Maggie and Jake), who was in attendance, the film stars Jason Biggs, who was also in attendance, and a dude dressed up in a polar bear outfit, caught later dancing at the party.

Polar bear dancing

Here I feel I should mention something about Biggs.  After the movie ended, he stayed around for at least 10-15 minutes, talking with fans, signing autographs, and posing for pictures.  In fact, most of the guests at SIFF spent lots of time hanging out with moviegoers once their films had ended, often having to continue conversations in the lobby so that the next film could start on time.

Despite all this time he spent standing right next to our concession stand, I did not get a picture of Jason Biggs.  I got something even better: a picture of Jason Biggs’s soda.

Some of the ice cubes in there are mine.

The party for the Closing Night Gala was at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.  I got there for the last hour with a coworker, who graciously offered me a ride from work.  I couldn’t imagine how the Centerpiece Gala could have been better; this one had a cover band.  And they were awesome.

All Mixed Up plays at the Closing Night Gala

As for the Super Secret Staff Party, I cannot tell you anything about it: not where it was held, who went to it, or what occurred during its duration.  All I can share with you is this photo:.

Post-Festival Events

The last official SIFF party occurred on Tuesday, June 12, at 4 pm.  Like the NW Connections Party, it took place at the Grill on Broadway, after our kickball game at Cal Anderson Park (held at 2 pm).  The teams were Operations (which included Floor Staff) versus Artistic.  Though Artistic surged back, Operations won 6-5.  My contribution was in not catching a ball that resulted in a triple, getting out twice, and wearing the team t-shirt. There was also an unofficial karaoke party on Wednesday night, which I went to after my cleanup shift at the Uptown was over.  Apparently, performances from that night can be seen online.  For that reason, I’m not going to tell you where it was held, since my voice gave out near the end of “Uptown Girl.” 😛

The Film Festival Cometh… — Anniversary Post

SIFF 2012 was the first film festival I worked as staff, not as a volunteer. It also was the first festival after SIFF had acquired and opened the Uptown Theatre in Lower Queen Anne. And, it was the first festival where I went to a press screening. This was back before I had my website, so while I still tweet under the Twitter handle linked at the end of the post, if you want to follow my tweets during this year’s festival, you’ll want to follow @salvatorespeak.

Today I went to my first press screening (ever) for the Seattle International Film Festival.  This is where the press, people who shell out tons of money on movie passes, and movie staff, who don’t shell out lots of money on movie passes (because, hey, we work at movie theaters) get to see films picked for the Seattle International Film Festival before they play the festival.  For the past two weeks now, Monday through Thursday, the Uptown Theater has shown films at 10 am, 12 pm, and 2 pm.  You can stay for all three press screenings, but I had time I’d rather waste at home, and so only went to the first showing at 10 am.  Directed by Seattle’s own Megan Griffiths, the film was called Eden, and is based on a real incident that happened to Chong Kim, who was kidnapped as a teenager and forced into sexual slavery.  After reading about the Seattle film scene in the latest City Arts magazine, I was hoping to have a chance to talk to Griffiths at the screening (the notice I read said she would attend).  While I’m sure she was there, the notice did not say where she was sitting.  For all I know, she could have been the one who introduced the film, though I believe that person works in the SIFF offices.

Anyway, Eden is a solid, well-made film, and while the screenplay is by Griffiths and Rick Phillips, Jr., the story is by Chong Kim herself.  Considering how professional and well-crafted the film is speaks well for Griffiths’s future, as this is only her second feature-length film (I missed her first film, The Off Hours, when it played at SIFF last year).  To quote Benjamin Kasulke, the cinematographer on The Off Hours, in that same City Arts article, “Eden is a movie-movie.  It doesn’t show the edges of its indie-ness.”  The plot misses most clichés, the acting is strong, the dialog is mostly good, and the film makes the audience feel for these characters and their situations.

If I have a caveat, it involves a lack of underlying tension throughout.  Sure, some scenes were tense, such as when Vaughan (Matt O’Leary) asks Eden (Jamie Chung) to shoot one of the girls to prove her loyalty to him, but the film only occasionally highlights the danger that danger she, and all the other girls, are in.  This kind of plot should allow the audience to breathe, but I felt it let us breathe too much.  Only in dealing with the abduction itself is the tension there.  Would that it had kept that tension up throughout the film (Note: as I didn’t have my notepad with me, I don’t know what Eden’s name was before she was given the name “Eden,” and an Internet search has turned up nothing).

And now for something (not) completely different….

This year is the first year I will be working at the festival, having accepting a job as floor staff for SIFF Cinema at the beginning of 2012.  This is both good and bad: good, because I can go see any regularly priced film without having to cash in vouchers for it ahead of time (see my badge photo at the top of this post); bad, because my work hours won’t be as flexible as they would have been had I been volunteering.

Also, since I rather tired myself out trying to finish up blog entries about last year’s festival, and as that isn’t conducive to anyone, I will only be focusing on the truly great films on my blog this year, and leave the film-by-film account for Twitter, which is on the sidebar (you can follow me here).

SIFF 2012 runs from May 17-June 10. Click here for information on the movies playing this year. [Note: the link no longer exists. -5/21/19]

SIFF: Week Three (June 5-11, 2011) — Anniversary Post

Besides watching great movies you may never see again, one of the main reasons for attending a film festival — rather than seeing movies during their theatrical runs — is to get the chance to hear from people who worked on the film or — in the case of documentaries — its subjects. One of the most memorable moments of SIFF 2011 came from one of these “guests” — except that she wasn’t invited! Scroll down to my review of Tabloid to read more. But first, read my take on The Whisperer in Darkness, one of the best H.P. Lovecraft adaptations I’ve seen. Unlike Tabloid, the guests associated with that screening were invited.

In front of Boom Noodle with SIFF, Week Three tickets

Sunday, June 5th

Volunteer: Line Greeter     Neptune Theatre     10am-2pm

I worked with the same house coordinator as yesterday, though I don’t remember if I worked with any of the same volunteers.

The first movie was a Ken Loach film called Route Irish, which deals with a contractor in Iraq whose friend is killed under mysterious circumstances.  The film looked great, but it’s one of those movies that must be seen from the beginning.  I saw George from Seattle Cinema Club there, as well as Craig, who I met last year while volunteering. Craig asked me what movie I would recommend; I told him he should see The White Meadows.

The next film was Killing Bono.  Yes, that Bono.  As I was going down the line outside to make sure that everyone had the right tickets, I recognized one of the people in line, also from Seattle Cinema Club.  After I talked to her, someone else called out to me, but I didn’t recognize her.  And yet….

Then, she said, “It’s Marianne!”

Yes, that’s right; I had finally met the elusive Eastsider @mariannesp. I gave her a big hug once I realized who she was, and then was introduced to her husband.

Once I got to the end of the line, I doubled back to the front entrance, where Marianne asked if I were seeing this film.  Unfortunately, it was lunchtime for me (as well as the end of my shift), though I wish I had come back when the movie had finished so that I could hang out with her more. 20/20 hindsight.  Anyway, she asked me for the best films I had seen so far, so I told her The White Meadows, Littlerock, and Project Nim.

14.     Snow White (France 2010: 90 min)     Neptune Theatre     6:30 pm

Snow White (Le Blanche Neige) is a ballet based on the classic fairy tale, which received its US Premiere on Thursday at SIFF.  Before it began, I listened to the conversations between the people around me, many of whom seemed to be in the ballet world.  In fact, the people who sat to my left looked like VIPs.  As to the group of young women in front of me, they were passing around a photo of an ultrasound, as one of them was pregnant, which the others were celebrating.  This creates a neat segway into the film, which was introduced by Justine Borden, as the first shot is of Snow White’s mother, pregnant and alone, giving birth to her daughter in the forest.

Then Snow White grows up, disappearing behind a set of panes to reappear as an older version of herself.  The familiar elements of the story are here (though the Queen gets two rat henchmen), set to the music of Mahler.  The music greatly matches the mood of each scene it portrays, especially music from the 10th (Snow White dances alone at the ball), 8th (the apple sequence), and 5th (the Adagietto, when the Prince grieves over Snow White, dead from the poison apple).  The apple sequence, in fact, was a passionate highlight of the film.

Unfortunately, most of the dance numbers lack passion.  There is some nice footwork, to be sure, but the dances are too angular (particular in the arms) to convey the full emotional impact of the score (though Céline Galli, who plays Snow White, is excellent).  This in spite of the dwarves dressed as miners scaling a wall, and one sequence between Snow White and the Prince, where they first dance without any music, then with music.  This brings up another point: the duets are better than the group dances.

One final note: the costumes are good, on the whole (including one of a deer in the forest), but Snow White’s dress at the end of the film is bizarre. 3 out of 5

15.     The Whisperer in Darkness (USA 2011: 103 min)     Neptune Theatre        9 pm

In what may be the strangest double-feature I’ve done at SIFF, I followed Snow White, a ballet, with The Whisperer in Darkness, a horror movie shot in black-and-white.  For this film I had to exit and then re-enter the theater, except that the people in charge of allowing the re-entry pass people in first were not paying attention.  Still, I grabbed a good seat, in exactly the same row that I sat in for Snow White, but more toward the center.  I had just started reading H.P. Lovecraft at this point, and so had not gotten to this particular short story of his, which is one of the longer ones in my collection.

The film version is a faithful adaptation of the short story, in which a professor at Arkham University begins a correspondence with a man who says that he has seen crab-like creatures on his premises, located near the hills of Vermont.  Made to look and feel like an old horror movie from the 30s, it also shares the format’s penchant for building suspense slowly, rather than shocking us with loud noises, CGI monsters, and things that jump out at us.  The same group adapted The Call of Cthulhu as a silent horror film, which up until this film’s release was hailed as the best adaptation of a Lovecraft story to date (source: Necronomicron: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft).  This one should share in that praise. 5 out of 5

SIFF Programmer, David Robertson, Andrew Leman, Sean Branney

Q&A: For this film, David Robertson (producer, sound & lighting), Andrew Leman (producer), and Sean Branney (director) went onstage during the end credits to talk about the film.  There had been a few glitches in the picture with the digital medium, but the guests said they would not be on the DVD release, which would be available in the fall (and indeed is available on Amazon).  For their next Lovecraft adaptation, they are looking at either The Thing on the Doorstep or The Shadow Out of Time.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Lady Vanishes, Universal monster movies, and film noir influenced the look of the film, and most of it was shot in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.  Some interesting tidbits: the antique plane used in the film was found on eBay, where someone had built a 3/4 size model of it in his garage, and the cave sequences were shot in the Batcave.  Yes, that Batcave.

After the Q&A ended, I went over to David and asked him, “What’s the key to making a great Lovecraftian film?”

He said no one’s really asked them that question (score one, me!), but mentioned that Lovecraft is a master of mood, so you have to get the mood right.  The other trick is to follow the story.  Since he had talked earlier about how people weren’t eager to fund a film shot in black-and-white, with no stars, no violence, and no scantily-clad women, at that point Sean joked that they were going to make At the Mountains of Madness in Maui with three girls in bikinis.  I said Guillermo del Toro’s not doing it now, so he could, to which he replied, “We’ll steal it from him!”

Tuesday, June 7th

16.      My Afternoons with Margueritte (France 2010: 86 min)      SIFF Cinema     7 pm

Incredibly, this movie sold out.  Maybe not incredibly, for it stars Gerard Dépardieu, who shows that he doesn’t even have to act in order to act.  He is the character, and that’s that.  Here, he plays a uneducated handyman named Germain who meets an elderly woman, named Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus), on a park bench.  The woman reads to him from classic novels and shows him the kindness that his own mother never did.  What I love about this film is that all of the characters are well-drawn,  including Germain’s girlfriend Francine (who is beautiful and kind, but you believe that she could fall for a man like Germain).  While the ending is preposterous, a regular ending would not do.  My favorite scene is when Francine thinks that Germain is cheating on her because he has bought flowers, but not for her.  When she discovers that they are for a little old woman, however, all is forgiven. 4 out of 5 (though I’d probably give it a 3 now)

Thursday, June 9th

17.     Tabloid     (USA 2010: 87 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:30 pm

Now we come to the funniest film of the festival, with the most bizarre postscript.  Claire programmed this movie about a former beauty queen named Joyce McKinney who, along with an accomplice and a fake gun, kidnapped/rescued her husband-to-be from the Mormons in England, and then had sex with/raped him for three days while he was tied/shackled to a bed.  The man’s name was Kirk Anderson, and the story broke in the tabloids as “The Manacled Mormon.”  The Daily Express told the story from her perspective, the Daily Mirror dug up dirt on her as an adult escort into S&M, including tons of photos of her in bondage gear (which McKinney denies are her).  Then, McKinney faded into the background, only to reappear when she had her late dog, Booger, cloned five times by a scientist in South Korea, making the headlines yet again.

The point of this film is to show how the truth is much more complicated that people realize.  Everyone in the movie thinks that they know what really happened during those three days.  For McKinney, she had liberated her future husband.  For Anderson, he had been kidnapped and forced to have sex with McKinney.  For the tabloids, she was either a victim of her own misguided attempts at love or a manipulative woman with a thirst for kinky sex.  The evidence in the film supports both views.  For example, while the Daily Mirror had all of the negatives of the photos, they were lost during a reshuffling, leaving that evidence in doubt.  What isn’t in doubt is that McKinney is a natural performer, and Morris has fun with this material, lightly poking fun at all of the participants involved.  He even includes a former Mormon minister to explain what McKinney doesn’t know about Mormonism, especially concerning sex and their calling, while religious cartoons play in the background. 4 out of 5

Postscript: After leaving the theater, I noticed that there was a group of people surrounding a woman outside.  I looked quickly and thought, “That looks like Joyce McKinney,” but then thought, “It must be someone that looks like her,” before heading off to my bus stop.  Still, I kept looking up the street, and seeing that my bus was not going to arrive for a while, I felt it my journalistic (blogeristic?) duty to find out what was going on.

Well, it was Joyce McKinney.  As most of you know by now, she followed this film around from festival to festival, opening night to opening night, decrying the way that Morris has portrayed her in the film.  At first, I thought this was an Errol Morris joke, and a part of me still thinks that it might have been.  After all, where did she get the money to fly to all of these places?

In a rant that went all over the place, she explained why she was suing Mark Lipson (one of the producers of the film) and Errol Morris.  Included in her diatribe was that it had to do with a dog that she had to put down that Morris had said he would save, and with baby pictures that Lipson took from her and never gave back.  She then grew teary-eyed talking about how her mother was in a coma.  In her hand was a box that said, “This film is a hoax,” which you can see in the photo above.  She said that she came out to show that she’s a human being, too, but what she mainly showed is that Morris got her right.  She put on a bravura performance for us, one filled with words that matched that half-truths spoken in the film, and tears.

I eventually had to catch my bus, but Joyce McKinney continued to perform.

McKinney in full-tear mode

Friday, June 10th

Venue Volunteer: Ticket Ripper, Late Seater     Neptune Theatre     3:30-7:30 pm

Lots of traffic on 45th, due to the UW graduation.  One of the advantages of walking to work is that this didn’t affect me at all.

For my final volunteering gig of SIFF 2011, I worked with a house manager whom I had never worked with before.  The main film, at 4 pm, was called PressPausePlay, and dealt with how new technology has changed the medium in music, books, and film.  While the subject was interesting, and some of its interview subjects (like Moby and Lena Dunham) made some interesting points, the execution was not good.  Random images were shown in between each topic, and the film seemed as scatter-brained as social networking sites are supposed to make you.

The second film was Gandu at 7 pm.  I have no idea what that film is about, and I don’t feel like looking it up.  So instead, I’ll talk about the people I saw while I was volunteering.  First, I saw my housemate and his girlfriend walk by, his girlfriend having just graduated from the pharmacy program at UW.  I also saw Craig (again) and two Platinum Plus holders whom I had recommended Detective Dee to.  They had seen it and liked it.  Finally, my encyclopedic knowledge of film got me recognition from one of the volunteers, who thought I should be on one of the juries since I’m “an expert on film.” (her words)

Saturday, June 11th

18.     Norwegian Wood (Japan 2010: 133 min)     Egyptian Theatre     6 pm

The last film I saw at SIFF was the U.S. premier of Norwegian Wood, based on the book by the same name by Haruki Murakami (or Murakami Haruki, if you want to be properly Japanese).  Not surprisingly, it was sold out.  Carl Spence, the artistic director at SIFF, introduced the film.  Fortissimo Films, the company that–I’m assuming–distributed the film, gave SIFF permission to host the first U.S. screening.  Better yet, my parents were visiting, so I got to see it with them, along with several people from the Japanese Meetup Group.

This was one of the most highly anticipated films for me, despite its mixed reaction at the Toronto Film Festival from people whose blogs and tweets I follow, and my own mixed reaction upon reading the book.  In particular, I was curious to see how the film would match the brilliance of the book’s opening, which uses language so skillfully in creating the mood one feels when a painful memory enters one’s consciousness.  Perhaps realizing that he couldn’t, Tran Ahn Hung, the director and screenwriter, decided to start by showing us when Naoko, Kizuki, and (Watanabe) Toru used to hang out with each other.  Then, Kizuki kills himself.  Toru and Naoko reconnect before Toru goes to college, and he ends up having sex with her on her birthday.  Naoko, who was never able to get wet with Kizuki, even though she loved him, goes to live at a retreat in the countryside, in an attempt to heal her fragile psyche.  Toru goes to school in Tokyo, during the student protests.  There, he meets Midori, a sexually aware woman.  The year is 1969.

The first half hour of this film is a bit of a jumble, as minor characters are introduced and then vanish, such as Toru’s roommate.  Even Nagasawa, who becomes an important character for one of the subplots in the book, has a rushed entrance. Then the film settles down, and one notices the great acting, lighting, and cinematography.  Kikuchi Rinko, so great in Babel, plays Naoko, while Natsuyama Kenichi plays Toru.  The minor parts, such as Nagasawa, Hatsumi (Nagasawa’s girlfriend), and Reiko (Naoko’s friend at the retreat) are all well-taken.  Besides the changed beginning, the other main changes are the exclusion of Reiko’s back story and [SPOILER ALERT TILL THE END OF THE PARAGRAPH] the lines that come after the voiceover concerning Hatsumi’s future suicide, one of the most beautiful and moving parts of the novel.  On the other hand, I felt Naoko’s loss more here than I did when reading the novel.  As she explains to Toru, she and Kizuki had a special bond.  One cannot live without the other.

One more thing I should mention: while Kikuchi is fantastic, and Natsuyama plays Toru well, the one to watch here is Mizuhara Kiko, who plays Midori.  She illuminates every scene she’s in.  Naoko may look like the tougher role to play, but Midori is just as difficult.  I put her down as my choice for Best Supporting Actress. 4 out of 5

SIFF: Opening Night and Weekend, and Week One (May 19-28, 2011) — Anniversary Post

Welcome to a recurring theme of my SIFF posts: posts that are late (in this case, I originally published this post on July 13 — over a month after the festival ended!). The main reason for this repost is for a review of one of those “gems” I talked about earlier: a small movie called Littlerock.

Check out the nifty t-shirt!

SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) ended last month, but due to time constraints, I have not been able to post anything about it to my blog until now.

Last year, I included in-depth reviews of each film.  Since I saw almost double the number of films this time around, that is not possible. I will, however, include a short review of each film.

Also, I will be including my volunteering experience with my movie-going experience, instead of separating them out, like I did last year.

Okay, enough introduction. On with the show!

…and the back.

Thursday, May 19th: Opening Night    

Volunteer: Production Crew     McCaw Hall 7-9 pm

Thursday was beautiful in Seattle, which was lucky, since the Opening Night Gala includes the Red Carpet treatment. I wish I had brought my camera, but I didn’t this year. I did, however, ride with some excited college students (or maybe graduates) who were going to the opening night festivities. Women were in dresses and men were in suits.

I got off one stop too late, but I still got to where I had to go. I ran into Karl first (whom I had worked with on the census and SIFF last year) and then searched for Amy Poisson, the head of the Production Crew. Because she was busy inside, I ended up doing a lot of waiting, during which time I directed people to the correct lines and even took some Red Carpet photos for some moviegoers (though after the red carpet had been rolled up). I also got to eat a burrito, tell other volunteers about the burritos, talk to Karl, and wait some more. Since Karl was on the A team for volunteering (which included long volunteer shifts), he got a full series pass to the festival in lieu of vouchers.

Eventually, one of the crew members (Molly) started rolling up the red carpet, so the other volunteers and I began helping her. Amy came out after we had rolled up all of the carpets and had taken the rope stands (with the ropes) down to the bar area where the after party would be. She called Karl over to help, and then we had to remove the links on the banner in order to remove it from its stand, which would be taken down by professionals. I ended up rolling up the banner as the links were removed (along with Molly), and then we brought it down into SIFF Cinema’s lobby.

When we finished, it was only 8:30, and — as I said — much of that time had been spent waiting for Amy. The rest of the production crew said we could probably go, unless the people who signed us in knew of anything else we needed to do (Amy had left again by this point). This was when I saw one of my housemates walk by and offer me a ride, but only if I was leaving right then. Since I wasn’t sure, I told her to head on home without me while I checked with the people downstairs. I ended up waiting for about ten minutes while they checked to see if anything else needed to be done before they let me go. One of them mentioned how much of the time I had been there had consisted of waiting, but the other one pointed out that I had helped out during my down time. So, at about 8:40, I got my vouchers and left..and then had to wait for the bus.

Friday, May 20th: First Full Night of the Festival    

Venue Volunteer: Front Door Clicker    Neptune Theatre  8:15-9pm

The Neptune Theatre has been closed since last year, which meant that this was the first time I got to see the new theater — except that I didn’t really have time to see it. The first movie (3, by Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior) was running late, which meant that there was a quick turnaround between films. We also, as sometimes happens, had a volunteer there who didn’t have a badge or a volunteer t-shirt, and spoke little English.

One thing that has changed is that no one seems to have a key for the front door anymore, which means that one has to make sure that people don’t just wander in. The venue manager was Beth, who I think I’ve worked with before, but the house coordinator changes for each showing. Even so, I got to work with most of them several times, as well. Another change is that STG had its own people clean the theater between shows, so the volunteers didn’t have to do that.

The second movie was High Road, and the director for that film was there. During a lull in the action, I talked with his driver (also a volunteer), but not with him.

I originally was going to see Black Narcissus on Saturday, but was too tired after seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Sunday, May 22nd: Week One Begins    

Venue Volunteer: Ticket Ripper        Neptune Theatre    10am-2pm

While I didn’t get to see the inside of the Neptune on Friday, I did get to see it on Sunday. The screen has been raised, which means that the bars in the balcony no longer cover the bottom of the screen, nor the subtitles. Also, except for the balcony, all of the old theater seats have been replaced with black folding chairs. Finally, instead of a steady incline sloping downwards, the cushiony folding chairs have been arranged on two levels. And, while it was not open for business, I had heard the previous night that there would be a bar at the back of the theater.

As I was volunteering for four hours, I got to see part of the first film, a coming-of-age story called Submarine. What I saw looked delightful, but the British accents made the dialogue difficult to understand from the balcony, which made me wonder if the sound system was at fault, even though a new one had supposedly been put in. In the film, the boy follows the logic of advice books over empathy for the people around him, and then can’t understand when his actions don’t lead to the desired results, particularly concerning his girlfriend.

The second film was called Mama Africa, and there were a lot of late seaters for that one. I know because, in addition to ripping tickets, I was one of the ushers who did late seating. Also, we were told after the first movie not to use the door next to the men’s room for late seating (even the bathrooms have been redone) probably because the light ends up pouring into the theater.

Week One ticket stubs and my volunteer badge and t-shirt

1.     Ex (Hong Kong, 2010: 96 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:15 pm

The first film I saw at the festival this year was the US premier of a 2010 film from Hong Kong about an ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend who end up sharing an apartment for a brief period of time with the ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend. The line for this film was short at first, but got longer as we got closer to showtime. A Tribute to Ewan McGregor had been that afternoon, and I overheard some ladies in front of me say that he had been fantastic, especially in talking about all of the films he has done.

Ex (or Chin do in Cantonese) starts at the airport, with Zhou Yi (Gillian Chung) arguing with Woody (Lawrence Chou), her boyfriend, over who took a photo of Woody that she has discovered. Ping (William Chan Wai-Ting) and his girlfriend, Cee (Michelle Wai) sit at a table next to them, where it is revealed that Ping knows Yi. Cee ends up throwing water in Woody’s face because she thinks that Woody is about to hit Yi. Yi breaks up with Woody, but then discovers that she has no place to stay, since she was supposed to be traveling with Woody, and none of her friends and family are in Hong Kong. Cee says she can stay with Ping and her until Yi’s mother returns from her travels. As one might expect, Ping and Yi begin talking about their former relationship, and they realize that the love they felt for each other did not end when their relationship did (this is done in some very nice cut scenes back and forth between their current situation and their past relationship).

Unfortunately, after Cee, catching on to what is happening, tells Yi she must leave, the movie loses its focus and ends up meandering for the next thirty minutes until it reaches its conclusion. And this is only a 96 minute film. Worse, the supporting characters — particularly Woody and Cee — are never fully fleshed out.  That would be fine if the film had chosen to focus exclusively on Ping and Yi, but the director, Heiward Mak, throws these two characters, plus some others (Ping’s friend who drives a cab, Yi’s mother) into the movie in an attempt, I suppose, to add other dimensions to the story, but they aren’t given anything to do. Woody wants Yi back, but we can’t see why she should go back with him, and Cee has sex with Ping in order to keep control of him so that he won’t leave her, but is so needy that we don’t see why he started dating her in the first place. Perhaps both of them are just filling the hole that Ping and Yi have felt for each other since their breakup. As for the mother, her only role is to correct the quote that Yi attributes to her having said after Yi’s father died, which is, “You’re never with the one you love most.” The actual quote is, “The one I love most is no longer with me.” 2 out of 5

Monday, May 23rd

2.     Honey (Turkey/Germany, 2010: 108 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     7 pm

We first see a forest.  Before we see the horse, we hear it walking through the woods. A man follows. It takes a long time before they reach the center of the shot. We hear the rope being thrown up in the tree, the catching of the weight, and the creaking of the limbs as the man climbs up the tree. But then, the branch begins to break.

This is the beginning to Honey (Bal in Turkish), a film that is more about sounds and senses than plot and story. Yusuf (Bora Altas), a young boy who stutters when he reads, only speaks with his father (Erdal Besikcioglu), and that in a whisper. He also has vivid dreams.  And then his father goes missing while setting up beehives.

This film is about life and loss as observed through the eyes of a child. The audience sees the family’s daily life, some of Yusuf’s dreams about his dad (which sadly turn prophetic), and his days at school, where he is frustrated in his attempts to read in order to get a pin (at one point, he memorizes the story one student has told, only to have the teacher choose another story for him to read). There is some laughter (such as when he switches his book with the student next to him so that the teacher will think he did his homework), much solemnity, and, ultimately, sadness.  The final scene is one of those perfect shots that is so rare in cinema. The third film of a trilogy by director Semih Kaplanoglu about Yusuf (the first two are Egg and Milk), it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. 4 out of 5

Note: While not sold out, the viewing I went to was pretty full. Unfortunately, the sound was too loud at the beginning of the film (later rectified), and at one point (about 2/3 of the way in), the film showed ten seconds of sound, but no picture.

Wednesday, May 25th 

3.     Apart Together (China, 2010: 93 min)     SIFF Cinema     9:30 pm

When I went in to get my ticket for this film, there was one person in line; when I came out, there were many people. I also didn’t get a ballot going in. Luckily, I brought an extra one.

Apart Together (Tuan yuan in Mandarin) deals with separated lovers. At the beginning of this film, words on the screen tell of how soldiers fighting for the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949, after Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China. These soldiers were not allowed to return to the mainland until 1987 (89?), when the first annual visits were set up.

The lovers in this film are old and grey. The man married a Taiwanese woman, who has died. The woman married another man and had two daughters with him. She also bore her lover’s son, and has a granddaughter. At the beginning of the film, the granddaughter reads them the letter from this man, pausing briefly to eat more soup (which got a laugh). The man arrives, and we soon find out that he wants to take the woman back to Taiwan with him. She initially agrees (as does her husband, since he has spent many decades with her, her lover only one), but reconsiders when her husband suffers a stroke.

What is most fascinating about this film, besides politeness that gives way to subtle displays of emotions and then emotional outbursts, is how both Liu (the lover, played by Feng Ling) and Lu (her husband, played by Xu Cai-gen) do what they do out of love for Qiao Yu-e (Lisa Lu). When Liu visits, the normally frugal Lu buys the best crabs for him. Only later do we realize that he does this because he fears losing his wife to her lover.

We also get a sense of the rivalry between China and Taiwan when the tour guide on a bus filled with returnees points out how new and modern Shanghai is, even reporting how one of the buildings in the city is taller than Taipei 101, while the bureaucracy of China is revealed in a very funny episode in which Lu and Yu-e try to annul their marriage, only to find out that they need to get married again in order to get the proper documentation before they can divorce. What’s also interesting is that this film mentions the Cultural Revolution.

There are two incredibly powerful scenes in the film, one of which occurs in an excellent long shot, in which Liu, Lu, and Yu-e sit around a table and sing old Chinese songs. The second one occurs near the end of the film, when the returnees must go back to Taiwan. We then skip ahead one year to see what has changed, but I’m not sure if this part was necessary, even if it parallels the granddaughter’s boyfriend going to America for two years and saying he’ll be back with Liu fleeing to Taiwan and saying he’ll take Yu-e with him. 4 out of 5

Friday, May 27th

Volunteer: Production Crew      Neptune Theatre        9-2 (signed out at noon)

I worked with Amy again (and Holden, who is the director of operations), along with many other volunteers. Our job was to remove the folding chairs in the theater and replace them with theater seats loaned to us from the Sundance Film Festival. They were all on a truck, so we had to first unload them from the truck (2-4 seats on a wooden board), put each group of seats on a dolly, wheel it into the theater, and unload it. Each step took two people to do. I pulled a back muscle unloading one of them at the point where it had to be taken off the dolly temporarily to clear the step.

Once all of the seats were unloaded, they then had to be cleaned with towels and buckets of warm water. When the water got too cloudy, one of us would take it up to the men’s or women’s restroom, dump out the water, and refill them. While trying to refill them in the sinks, despite the fact that they didn’t quite fit under the nozzles, a guy told me and another volunteer about the hoses that we could use under the sinks. That made the job a lot easier.

Once the seats were clean, we then had to arrange them so that they provided enough legroom and aisle space. Also, some of the seats were raised up higher than others, so those seats had to go in the back. It was during this move that someone said, “Nobody put seats in this corner,” referring to an area where we needed some space. Amy responded by saying, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Since I was the only one to laugh at that, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for laughing,” and gave me a hi-five.

While this shifting was going on, I got to say hello to Molly again, and met Spencer, who made his name easy to remember by saying that it rhymed with “fencer.” We also talked about the sound issues and how they should put in some curtains to soak up some of the sound, though that issue may have been fixed, according to someone who saw a movie there yesterday.

Our final task was to sit in the seats (with really tall people sitting in front of short people) in order to make sure that everyone could see. Once a bunch of us (including me) had done this several times, we were allowed to leave and pick up our vouchers — two hours early. The good news? We got triple vouchers. Most of the movies I saw the second week of SIFF were due to the vouchers I got during this one shift.

Also, while I hadn’t brought my camera with me, I did take photos of the new seats when I saw Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame during week two:

4.     Littlerock (USA, 2010: 83 min)     Harvard Exit Theatre     9:30 pm

Actor Ryan Dillon introduces LITTLEROCK

I almost gave a 5 out of 5 for Apart Together, but it fell just short. Littlerock, on the other hand, gave me a 4 out of 5 for most of the film, and then scored the 5 at the end. It also was the first film I went to this year that had a Q&A afterwards.

Winner of the 2011 Independent Spirit Award, the film follows two siblings, Atsuko and Rintaro (which are also the first names of the actor and actress who portray them), who stop in a little town in California called Littlerock en route to San Francisco.  Awakened in the night by partying in the room next door, they end up meeting with some of the locals. While Rintaro can speak some English, Atsuko can only speak Japanese (during the film, she reads letters that she writes to their father, from which we understand that his relationship with Rintaro is somewhat strained, and also that he wished for them not to go on this trip). Though she can’t understand what the locals are saying without her brother nearby, she decides to stay in the town and hang out with them while Rintaro continues on to San Francisco, possibly because she has fallen in love with one of the guys she meets (Jordan, played by Brett L. Tinnes). And yet, it’s another guy, Cory (Cory Zacharia, in his first film role), who shows her around the town and wants her to be his girlfriend.

Eventually, the brother comes back, and they head to their second destination, which is a place called Manzanar. And that is when Littlerock changes from being a well-crafted film about two different cultures attempting to understand each other to a great film. By the time the movie has ended, we understand why the two of them are in America, why Atsuko stayed in Littlerock when her brother wanted to leave, why their father didn’t approve of their trip, and how — even when we don’t speak the same language as someone else — we can still understand them. When you watch this film (and you should), notice when the Japanese is subtitled and when it isn’t, and then ask yourself: do you need to subtitles to understand what Atsuko is trying to say? And is it any coincidence that a film about cultural tolerance is named for a place that brings echoes of a similarly named town that became one of the focal points for racial equality in America?

Only two things bothered me about this film: Atsuko’s accent and a predictable scene in which, through a window, she spots her lover with another woman.  Though the actor who stayed for the Q&A confirmed that she is from Japan, the accent sounds as if she isn’t used to speaking in Japanese (which is possible, since I found out she lives in America now, and has been living here for some time). Also, there’s another plot point in the film that I saw coming from a mile away, but that’s because it was the right decision to make. The camerawork is great (by being invisible), the directing is tight (by Mike Ott), and the script by Ott and Atsuko Okatsuka (Atsuko in the film) teaches a moral without being preachy. This is a great little film.  5 out of 5

Q&A with Ryan Dillon: Ryan Dillon played Brody, the “bad guy” of the film. The actor, however, is the complete opposite, and has roots in Seattle. During the Q&A, he said that he and the director, Mike Ott, had done a previous film together (Analog Days), and they were currently working on another film, with most of the same cast, called Teenage Wastleland. While Littlerock was scripted, the actors could adlib. Also, in real life, Atsuko can speak English very well, as can Rintaro. Like Cory, this is her first film.  Dillon also said that “Atsi” is a comedian, and a very funny one, too, as you can see here:

Dillon also mentioned that Rintaro had been in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami hit Sendai, but he’s fine. He also said that they were initially looking at someone else to play the role of Cory, but came across Zacharia on campus and decided they HAD to cast him (he’s very close in real life to what he is in this film).

As for one of the factors in telling this particular story, Dillon told us that, during the filming of Analog Days, Mike Ott fell in love with an Argentinian woman who couldn’t speak English.  Even though they couldn’t communicate via language, they became a couple, and could understand each other in other ways.

Once the Q&A was over, I went over to talk to Dillon (Ebertfest must have made me bolder). In front of me was a woman who was working on a multilingual script with a similar bent to Littlerock. She gave Dillon her business card to pass on to Atsuko. I later passed on my business card to her. When I talked to him, I mentioned (as the woman had before me) that I understood Japanese, so the experience was different for me than for someone who couldn’t understand what the non-subtitled Japanese meant. I asked him what other films he had been in of Ott’s. He said he’s been in two of the director’s films, and most of the people from this film (plus one from Analog Days) will be in Teenage Wastleland. I told him that maybe we’d see Teenage Wasteland at SIFF.

Saturday, May 28th

Venue Volunteer: Passholder Counter, Ballot Distributor      Neptune Theatre     3:15-7:45 pm

The house coordinator for the first shift was very stressed out, which in turn stressed out the volunteers. Normally, in the middle of a shift, volunteers are allowed to leave the theater (especially if the shift overlaps with mealtime) so long as they come back before the film ends, so as to collect ballots and prepare for the next movie. This house coordinator wouldn’t let us, in case a rush of Platinum Plus passholders descended on us halfway through the film (note: this never happens, and Platinum Plus passholders know where their seats are in the theater, since they pay to have them reserved). Luckily, she only covered the first part of our shift. The second house coordinator was much more relaxed, even though she hadn’t worked in the Neptune before.

The first film (which we collected ballots from) was Bruce Lee: My Brother. The second film (with the stressed-out house coordinator, and for which I counted passholders at the back door) was called Winds of Heaven, and was a documentary about Canadian impressionistic painter Emily Carr. Because it was so windy in Seattle that day, I told a joke about how the movie title was appropriate, since outside raged the winds of Seattle.

The director of Winds of Heaven, Michael Ostroff, was in attendance, so some of us talked to him once the film began, including one volunteer who knew who Emily Carr was, having studied her in art history. As he talked with us, he packaged DVDs of the film to sell afterwards.

I got to see some of the film, which looked beautiful (all hail 35 mm!). Carr was one of the first painters to paint the First Nations, and — like most great artists — was ignored for her contribution for most of her life. I also almost fell asleep on one of the chairs, since they were so comfy.

After the film, the director sold all of his DVD copies to an admiring crowd. That made traffic a bit tricky within the theater, but it meant that the ballots could be collected while people waited.

The last film was called Shanghai Fusion, which had an after party. Sadly, volunteers could not go to the after party unless we had purchased it as part of the ticket price, though we could stay for the film (I was tired and hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I elected not to). I think the director was there for that, as well — a beautiful East Asian woman in a blue dress. Unfortunately, a photographer was talking to her, so I wasn’t able to strike up a conversation.

For this film, the balcony was off-limits (except to Platinum Plus passholders) until the bottom of the theater was full, and fill up it did. Of all the films I volunteered for, this film had the most Platinum Plus passholders in attendance (if one counts the friends they brought).

As I left the theater, the East Asian woman also crossed the street with her crew soon after me. As I was waiting for the crosswalk symbol to change, I had another opportunity to talk with her, but didn’t.